Edda Schlager, a journalist, photographer, and “natural feminist,” has spent the last 17 years researching and capturing key moments in Central Asia’s modern history: the demolition of old buildings and the erection of new ones; the rise of a new patriarchy and women’s resilience; the modernization of public spheres and the recovery of the past. She thinks that today, the Central Asian countries have an opportunity to become independent of Russia for a second time, asserting their own uniqueness and betting on their globalized future.
Please tell us about your first impressions from your work and travels in Central Asia.
I myself am from Germany, and I have been living in Central Asia since 2005, specifically in Kazakhstan. During this time, I would say that I have become an Almaty girl — I have fallen in love with this city.
About my impressions—at first, I was a little intimidated because my Russian was not good enough for conversation and people in Kazakhstan did not speak much English. So I conducted my first projects with trepidation, and my first years were quite tough. But one thing I can say for sure is that people in Kazakhstan and in Central Asia in general are very open and interested in foreigners. More than that, in almost all the countries of Central Asia I have observed one big plus that initially really surprised me: people are very respectful of Germans. I am, of course, aware that there are so-called “local Germans”—the descendants of those Germans whom Stalin deported from the Volga or Crimea to Kazakhstan in the early 1940s. I studied them and their history at length. I am not one of those Germans, but still, locals’ respect for those Germans and their achievements was and is huge, and for me it has been an unexpected bonus.
Edda Schlager has been a freelance Central Asia correspondent based in Almaty since 2005. Her reporting area includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. She is the only German-speaking journalist permanently residing in the region and has been working mainly for German public radio broadcaster Deutschlandradio, but also as an author for newspapers and magazines in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, as a photographer and TV producer, e.g. for CNBC, ARTE, ARD. Her reports provide background information on current events in the region and place them in the context of international events. In 2017 she has published the “Architectural Guide Dushanbe” (in German, by DOM publishers), and currently, she is writing the “Architectural Guide Almaty” which will be published in English, as well by DOM publishers.
I certainly do not want to romanticize anything about Central Asia—absolutely not. I have seen a lot of things here that are not romantic at all.
What was the first place you visited? Who were the first people you photographed? How have the places, people, and region changed since then?
I cannot say that I have visited all regions of Central Asia, but I have seen a lot. I have been to Turkmenistan—Ashgabat, Mary, Avaza; Uzbekistan—Tashkent, Nukus, Muynak, the Aral Sea, the Fergana Valley, Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara; Kyrgyzstan—Bishkek, around Yssyk-Kul, Osh. I have been to many regions of Kazakhstan, except for the north; I like Altai very much. In Tajikistan, I have been to Dushanbe—I wrote a book about it—as well as Khorog, Murghab, Zeravshan Valley, the Pamirs, and others. There are places I haven’t been to yet, but I plan to.
Kazakhstan has changed a lot since I started living here: the infrastructure, the standard of living. To give just a minor example: internet connections have improved in many cities—and are now far better than in many places in Germany, I have to admit.
Among the region’s problems, I can mention the problem with freedom of speech for journalists and activists. This applies to all Central Asian countries. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan I am very concerned about the recent wave of repression in which more than 20 activists and politicians were arrested. It is almost impossible for foreign journalists to report from Turkmenistan, never mind their local colleagues. In Tajikistan, too, freedom of speech has deteriorated recently.
You are the author of the book Architectural Guide Dushanbe, published in 2017 by DOM publishers. What did you find interesting about Dushanbe? What are your thoughts on the demolition of some of its Soviet-era monuments?
The experience of doing research, taking photographs, going into some small neighborhoods in Dushanbe where foreigners’ feet had never stepped, talking to strangers who looked out the window and then invited me to have tea during Ramadan, was an amazing one that is impossible to forget. People were happy and surprised to have foreigners coming to them to write a book about beautiful Dushanbe.
Regarding historical buildings, it is very sad because many of those about which I wrote in my book no longer exist: they have been demolished, torn down. Usually, the way cities are urbanized is that other buildings are built and developed around an historic city center, and in this way cities are expanded. But what has happened in Dushanbe is an internationally rare case where they demolished everything that was old and then started to build something new in its place. In the process, they destroyed the history of the city, the work of the former architects, the culture of the times when they built the buildings. In my opinion, this is a very bad example of modern city development.
I am currently working on a second Architectural Guide, this time about Almaty. There have been cases in Almaty, too, where they wanted to—and eventually did—demolish historic buildings, and a civil movement has developed around that. There are now civic initiatives such as ArchCode and Urban Forum Kazakhstan that raise grassroots awareness among residents and improve their understanding of architecture. They also try to influence urban policy, and it seems to me that they have been successful in some respects. It gives me hope that Almaty is a little bit better in this regard than Dushanbe.
I would also like to add that there are similar tendencies toward civil movements in Tashkent that are—through architecture, urbanization, and the environment in which people live—developing people’s consciousness.
The transformation of the region has been enormous and we are particularly interested in women. Some think there has been progress; some clearly see regression in women’s lives and rights. What do you think? Do you have any memorable women’s stories to share?
I would say that I am a “natural feminist,” emancipated. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the former GDR. Both of my parents were civil engineers, and already in those years they had established equal rights at home themselves; they were on the same level of development and partnership. For me and my sister, very naturally, there was never a question of not being able to become one or another kind of professional. My parents were always supportive and we had emancipation at home. For me, that was the norm. Only many years later did I realize that this did not apply to all women—not in Germany, and especially not in Central Asian countries.
There are so many examples of women I have met here in Central Asia whose fate moves me to this day. For example, I met a woman in Tajikistan who was infected with HIV. The story is that male migrant workers go to Russia, return once a year to Tajikistan, impregnate their wives, and infect them with HIV. Because of taboos and social rules in society, women are always ultimately to blame for such situations, which of course is completely wrong. This woman I met—I think she has probably died, because the last time we met she was very sick. She was quite open about everything, although such things are still taboo in Tajikistan. As far as I know, the HIV issue is still immanent in Tajikistan and women, of course, cannot get out of this situation on their own.
As a woman from a Western country, at that time, I did not understand why such women did not talk to their husbands or even leave them. Only later did I come to understand that neither men nor women are protected by a social system that meets their needs.
So, sitting in Western countries, where more or less fair social systems and state-financed safety nets are built, with the experience and worldview of someone from the West, it is almost impossible to understand these women and men—and it’s even less possible and permissible to condemn them. I have already said that in my opinion, the state does not provide its citizens with a social system that guarantees them a secure life. This is, in my view, one of the reasons why the birth rate in Tajikistan is very high. Women give birth to a lot of children, and for families this is like a substitute for social insurance. Because when these children grow up, some of them will die or get sick, some of them will leave the country as migrant workers, and (if the parents are lucky) some of them will stay near the parents to take care of them. Education in Tajikistan is very weak and the state tells people “to have a lot of children,” and women end up taking on all the consequences and responsibility.
There is another example from Kyrgyzstan. Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is a very famous topic in Western countries and I have written on this topic as well. I worked with a woman who had a women’s rights NGO, and she introduced me to a girl of about 19-20 years who had, at that moment, been kidnapped literally two days earlier. This girl gave me an interview and I learned about the shock she had gone through. Her husband let her give the interview; she spoke in a very quiet voice. When girls are kidnapped for marriage, they have to sit in the man’s (groom’s) house for three days, where neighbors and relatives will come and look at the girl and check whether she is normal, healthy, what her hair and eyes look like, whether she will be able to give birth to healthy children.
I took one picture of the house, and there was a blue cloth pinned up to isolate this “bride” girl so that anyone who entered the house would not immediately see her. I asked her what relationship she had with the guy who kidnapped her, and she said they went to the same university but she barely knew him. Then I interviewed that guy, and he said with a smirk that he and his friends were sitting around drinking beer, “and one of the friends said they all got married, and that I should get married too.”
And the girl was wearing a red dress and had a very sad face, which I still remember. It would be interesting to know how she lives now, because her parents told her that she has to stay there because if she goes back home, no one else will ever marry her. Maybe he raped her afterwards, as usually happens in such situations, which is scary to think about.
In general, violence against women in Central Asian countries is, in my opinion, often the only way men can show their power, because there are no jobs, no money, and they have nothing to offer a woman. Therefore, men feel humiliated and direct their anger toward women, to whom they are at least physically superior. All of this is ultimately a reflection of weak institutions of social and economic development; physical repression is perceived as a tool for governing both the family and the country.
But I don’t want to talk about women only as victims. There are wonderful examples of women in Central Asia who have done extraordinary things. Let’s speak about Kyrgyzsatellite, a project by Kyrgyz girls who want to launch a satellite into space—brave, educated, young women who are moving something forward.
Kazakhstan also has a fledgling women-created project called Aul.Inspired. They go to auls (villages) and teach children English and social skills at the same time. In parallel, the creators of the project work with schools and do volunteer work. They recently organized an event in Chilik in which 150 children participated. I think that we should talk about such examples, too.
In general, do you see Central Asia bidding farewell to all that is Soviet? How is the process of nation-building going? While the region self-reflects, are there any signs that the countries of Central Asia might be willing to work together on various issues, building a common market and maybe even foreign policy?
When I first came to the region back in 2005, I knew little and thought it was one region, and we still talk about these countries as one region, but we have to differentiate more. At that time, all the countries of Central Asia were very busy finding and developing their own identities.
If in the Soviet Union they were forced to be unified and depended economically on each other—for example, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan produced oil, gas, and coal and gave it to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in exchange for water—then during the years of independence they have moved away from each other and started to build their own economies. Uzbekistan had a closed economy under Islam Karimov, while Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, on the contrary, decided to invite foreign investors. Kazakhstan used to be economically less developed than Uzbekistan: I remember that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, even the German government said that in cooperating with this region, Uzbekistan would be the most important country. But because of the economic and political isolation under Karimov and the Uzbek authorities, the country’s economy did not develop much, and over time Kazakhstan’s economy began to take the lead in Central Asia. I remember Islam Karimov often accused Tajikistan of not wanting to give enough water, when in fact Uzbekistan wasted water resources due to poor maintenance of irrigation systems. When Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power, he took a different, more regional approach. I think he succeeded, as the neighboring countries began to understand that Mirziyoyev’s proposal—more cooperation at the regional level—was not a bad option.
But in the last 2 years the situation has worsened again. There was Bloody January in Kazakhstan, there is the ongoing conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, there is repression in the GBAO in the Pamirs in Tajikistan, there were the protests in Karakalpakstan. All this is unfolding against the background of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which has been having a major impact on the countries of Central Asia.
Now there is a big discussion about decolonization. So far, this is mostly on the level of scientists and activists—I think the discussion has not yet reached ordinary people—but probably this will change soon. In Kazakhstan, for example, the question of language is particularly relevant: many people, including in my milieu, are discussing in what language they should communicate, and they often raise the importance of the Kazakh language.
This is why I think that huge changes are to be expected in the region as a whole, especially since we do not know what will happen in Russia. But the impact of these processes on Central Asia is simply colossal. In addition, there are other big players—like China, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan—that are looking to stake their claim in Central Asia and should not be forgotten.
You have worked across the entire Central Asian region. What do you think it shares across its countries and what divides it?
I see the countries of Central Asia as a bridge between the European world and the Middle East/the Arab world. Central Asia shares a common past with Russia, and despite Russia’s colonial policy toward these countries, we cannot undo history; we can only begin to interpret it differently. But each Central Asian country has its own culture, traditions, values, and its own way of becoming independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union—and now, we can maybe even say that there is an opportunity to become independent from Russia for a second time. So each country is definitely unique.
Central Asia is a place that tourists generally find attractive and safe. What else can we do to let the world know about the region? What do people abroad get wrong about Central Asia?
I think we should talk more about modern Central Asia—about modern entrepreneurs and the young people who live here and are trying to push their countries forward, about how advanced and cool these people are. This is something we in the West often do not acknowledge.
I see resilience among the people in this region. For example, during the pandemic, the authorities helped very little, but people developed their own personal protection systems and volunteers worked very hard. A separate important topic is the geopolitical role of this region, as I already mentioned. In Europe, little is known about this, and that is why I am here to report on it.
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